Manuel Noriega and Lindsay Lohan have No Doubt about their Right of Publicity

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What do Manuel Noriega, Lindsay Lohan and the rock group No Doubt have in common? All of them have sued videogame makers for infringement of their rights of publicity. On July 15, 2014, Manuel Noriega sued videogame maker Activision Blizzard in Los Angeles Superior Court when his name and animated likeness were included in the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Less than two weeks earlier, Lindsay Lohan filed a Complaint alleging that her likeness was used, under a pseudonym of “Lacey Jonas,” in the Rockstar Games videogame Grand Theft Auto V. No Doubt alleged that Activision exceeded the consent it gave for use of band members’ likenesses as avatars in the videogame Band Hero. These claims seem to be emblematic of a recent upswing in claims of violations of the “right of publicity”.

California and most other states recognize that a person has a right to protect his or her name, likeness, signature, voice and other identifying aspects of personae from commercial exploitation without consent. The right of publicity protects not just photographs but all forms of likenesses, including animated versions of people in videogames. The right of publicity is a type of intellectual property – in some ways analogous to (but not the same as) a trademark. An important point to understand is that the right of publicity is not ordinarily precluded simply by ownership or license of the copyright in the image – even if you took a photo of Lindsay Lohan yourself and you own the copyright in that photograph, that in itself generally does not mean you can use it in an advertisement to sell a product without Lindsay Lohan’s consent.

The right of publicity is distinct from rights protecting against slander or defamation – there is no requirement that a person’s reputation has been harmed in any way, or that he or she ever had a positive reputation. Manuel Noriega is probably best known as a former leader of Panama who was deposed, tried and convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. Nonetheless, Manuel Noriega has the same right to prevent others from commercially exploiting his name and likeness as anyone.

An important and often overlooked aspect of the right of publicity is that it is a right held by everyone – not just celebrities. While celebrities could command more money for the commercial use of their identities, everyone has the same right to protect his or her name from commercial exploitation without consent, regardless of previous anonymity.

This is a particularly important lesson for businesses that might be inclined to scour the Internet and copy a photograph of some unknown model and use it in advertising or packaging. In addition to the risk that unauthorized copying and use might violate a copyright in the photo, such unauthorized use for commercial promotion run a strong risk of violating the model’s right of publicity and giving rise to a claim for damages. Even a business that has ordered a photo of a professional model specifically for use in advertising or packaging would do well to check whether the model signed a release that covers the particular use, because model releases can differ in scope and effect.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has been involved on both sides of the right of publicity – defending actions by models against companies who thought they had sufficient releases of the models’ rights of publicity, and asserting models’ rights to be compensated for the commercial value of their likenesses. CK&E attorneys stay current on the developing law of the right of publicity, which is a quickly expanding area of law affecting everyone from manufacturers and marketers to models, celebrities and ordinary people.

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You Shook Hands – But Do You Have a Deal?

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Courts have held that, in business negotiations, “Handshakes are significant. When people shake hands, it means something.”  Unfortunately, they have also held that when people shake hands, “several meanings are possible.”

In Rennick v. O.P.T.I.O.N. Care, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal considered a party’s contention that a deal was struck when, after months of discussion and a 4-hour negotiating session, the parties “got up and circulated around the room and shook hands with each other on having made the deal.”  The Rennick case observed that a jury could reasonably find that “the handshake was confirmation of a contract, or that it was an expression of friendship and the absence of ill will after a day of hard bargaining.”  So, given the uncertainty of its meaning, should we stop shaking hands when discussing business?  Of course not.  Indeed, the Court noted that, “By custom, it is a rude insult to reject an outstretched hand in most circumstances, and to do so at the end of a long business meeting would likely prevent a future deal.”

The issue of the parties’ intent upon shaking hands is not a small one.  In August 2014, Charles Wang, the owner of the New York Islanders was sued by a hedge fund manager who claimed that the parties had shaken hands on a deal to buy the NHA hockey team for $420 million, and that Wang had breached their agreement by demanding more money.  The frustrated purchaser sued to either enforce an apparently unsigned 70-page agreement to conclude the sale of the team, or recover a $10 million break up fee that he claims was among the terms agreed upon with a handshake.

Courts struggle with this kind of issue, with or without handshakes.  In contract disputes, courts try to enforce the parties’ expressed intentions. For example, where the parties clearly express that they do not intend to be bound until they sign a formal written contract, courts will try to honor that intention by finding that no contract exists unless a written agreement was fully signed.  Indeed, negotiating parties usually can express almost any manner of requirement before an agreement becomes enforceable.  Quentin Tarantino’s civil war era film Django Unchained featured a climactic scene in which the odious character Calvin Candie extorted Dr. King Schultz into signing an outrageous contract, and then insisted that the signed contract was meaningless unless Dr. Schultz also shook his hand.  As a general point of law that was a doubtful proposition even in Mississippi in 1858, but if the parties had been careful to express that intention in their written agreement it probably would have been an enforceable prerequisite to the validity of the contract.

In reality, too often there is no such clear delineation.  If the parties do not eliminate such possibilities by an express statement of their intentions, oral expressions or an exchange of emails or text messages might create an enforceable agreement.  That is because, when the parties aren’t careful about expressing their intentions, courts are left to divine whether the parties intended an agreement with or without signatures on paper.  Courts consider testimony about what was said and evidence of what was written and the activities that took place before, during and after the time of the purported agreement to draw conclusions about what the parties’ intentions really were. Often, the parties’ contemporaneous correspondence is the most important evidence of whether the parties intended to have a binding agreement immediately, or whether the parties intended only to express their good will or intention to negotiate further.

To avoid unnecessary disputes, a cautious businessperson should make a point to express clearly his or her intentions.  The best approach is to plan ahead and be as clear as possible in a written expression as to when the deal is considered enforceable.  The Conkle law firm counsels and represents businesses in negotiations to achieve those ends, or in disputes that can arise when the businesses handled negotiations themselves and come to Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys only after things did not turn out as intended.

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Nagoya Protocol: Response to Biopiracy Becomes Effective October 2014

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The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization became effective on July 14, 2014, with its 50th ratification.  The Nagoya Protocol will begin to have a direct impact on the personal care and cosmetics industry on October 12, 2014.

With the increased consumer demand for natural and organic products, a growing number of companies in the beauty industry are drawing on biodiversity for its rich variety of native ingredients and as a way to differentiate their products.  The use of exotic ingredients sourced from countries rich in biodiversity means that companies need to be aware of the Nagoya Protocol and the country-specific “Access and Benefit Sharing” laws and regulations that exist and are being enacted.  The use of indigenous ingredients in hair care, skincare and cosmetics formulations – such as baobab oil extracted from the fruits of the baobab trees found across Africa or katafray bark extract from the katafray trees of Madagascar – may be a violation of the Nagoya Protocol if Access and Benefit Sharing requirements are not met.

The Nagoya Protocol is an international treaty focused on Access and Benefit-Sharing, which was adopted in 2010 by the United Nations’ Nagoya, Japan Convention on Biological Diversity.  The Nagoya Protocol arose from the interest of national governments to conserve and promote sustainable use of their countries’ biodiversity and protect against commercial biopiracy.  The purpose of the Nagoya Protocol is to support fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.

Generally, the Nagoya Protocol requires that access to a participating country’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge be subject to the “prior informed consent” of the party providing such resources.  The Nagoya Protocol also requires the sharing of the benefits arising from the commercialization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge with the owners of biodiversity, including the local communities and the indigenous people, on “mutually agreed terms.”

The Nagoya Protocol itself establishes only international norms and a framework for Access and Benefit Sharing measures, and does not impose Access and Benefit Sharing laws itself.  That is left to national legislation, and requires the contracting parties to implement their own Access and Benefit Sharing measures and to designate a competent national authority on ABS.  Many countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and India, already have national enabling laws and regulations.

Personal care product companies in particular also should be aware that their marketing and advertising of the products as containing native ingredients or drawing on traditional knowledge could subject them to a claim of biopiracy by national governments, local communities, and even non-governmental organizations.

Although the United States is not a contracting party to the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Nagoya Protocol, companies in the United States whose products utilize genetic resources or traditional knowledge from a member state, or are sold in a member state, must comply with the access and benefit sharing requirements.  It is imperative for companies to exercise due diligence to ensure that their raw material or ingredient suppliers have obtained prior informed consent for access to genetic resources or associated traditional knowledge used in their products, and mutually agreed terms for the sharing of benefits.

As a leader in providing legal services to the personal care products industry, CK&E can assist companies in instituting internal policies and procedures to help ensure compliance with the Nagoya Protocol.  CK&E will continue to monitor and provide updates about developments in the Nagoya Protocol.  The first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol will be held in October 2014 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, concurrently with the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Full text of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.  The countries that have ratified or acceded to the Nagoya Protocol to date are:

  • Albania
  • Belarus
  • Benin
  • Bhutan
  • Botswana
  • Burkina Faso
  • Burundi
  • Comoros
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • European Union
  • Fiji
  • Gabon
  • Gambia
  • Guatemala
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Guyana
  • Honduras
  • Hungary
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Jordan
  • Kenya
  • Lao People’s Democratic Republic
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritius
  • Mexico
  • Micronesia (Federated States of)
  • Mongolia
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Namibia
  • Niger
  • Norway
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Rwanda
  • Samoa
  • Seychelles
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sudan
  • Switzerland
  • Syrian Arab Republic
  • Tajikistan
  • Uganda
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu
  • Vietnam

 

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The Conkle Firm Attends IECSC and IBS Beauty Industry Shows in Las Vegas

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CK&E attorney Kim Sim recently attended the International Esthetics, Cosmetics and Spa Conference (IECSC) and International Beauty Show (IBS), two of the premier trade shows for manufacturers and distributors in the personal care products industry.  The trade shows were held June 12 through 14, 2014 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas.

IECSC Las Vegas is the country’s largest spa and wellness conference and expo, with more than 600 exhibitors, including manufacturers, distributors, spas and wellness centers, and thousands of professionals attending from the national and international spa and wellness market.  In addition, this year’s IBS Las Vegas, a beauty show focused primarily on salon-only and professional-grade products, featured more than 350 exhibitors.  Many of CK&E’s industry clients exhibited at both IECSC Las Vegas and IBS Las Vegas to widespread interest by show attendees.  Both IECSC Las Vegas and IBS Las Vegas offer a unique opportunity for CK&E to meet and interact with clients as well as other professionals in the beauty industry, and stay on the inside track about the industry’s latest developments and trends.  Kim was pleased to be able to catch up with BonBliss Beauty founders Elissa and Jay Choi.

CK&E’s next trade show attendance will be at Cosmoprof North America, one of the world’s top trade shows for the personal care products industry.

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris Promises to Scrutinize Prop 65 Settlements

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As reported on the Conklelaw blog, the California Attorney General’s Office recently released its long-awaited 2013 report of Proposition 65 settlements.  The report reveals that private Proposition 65 bounty hunters collected nearly $17 million in civil penalties, payments in lieu of penalties and attorneys’ fees and costs from businesses during 2013.

Concurrently with the report, the Attorney General’s Office took the unusual step of releasing a letter directed to the Proposition 65 plaintiffs’ bar – a small group of attorneys and law firms who specialize in representing private enforcers.

The letter from the Attorney General’s Office letter characterizes the 2013 report as shining “a light on some of the aspects of private enforcement of Proposition 65 that result in unnecessary burdens for businesses and are cause for public concern.”

The letter expresses particular concern over Proposition 65 plaintiffs’ practice of collecting “Payments in Lieu of Penalties” (also known as PILPs).  PILPs are supposed to offset civil penalties in Proposition 65 cases, and are intended to fund activities that have some nexus to the basis for the Prop 65 enforcement action.  Proposition 65 bounty hunters have broadly interpreted such PILP-funded activities to include funding additional Proposition 65 litigation.  Unlike civil penalties, of which California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is entitled to 75 percent, the state does not receive any portion of PILPs.  In 2013, 21% of the money collected in private settlements was paid as PILPs.

The Attorney General’s Office also criticized the enormous attorneys’ fees routinely collected by private enforcers as part of Proposition 65 settlements, and promised to “redouble” efforts to evaluate attorney’s fees awards.  In 2013, nearly 75 percent of all of the Proposition 65 settlement money, or an astonishing $12.5 million, went straight to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Attorney General Harris concluded, “Clearly, the high transaction costs for resolving Proposition 65 cases continue to be cause for concern.  They are the reasons we have been redoubling our efforts to evaluate attorney’s fees awards in the private party settlements submitted to us. . . .”

Attorney General Harris’ pledge to actively scrutinize Proposition 65 settlements is consistent with her “hands-on” approach to attempting to curb private enforcement efforts.  In 2011, for example, the Attorney General filed an opposition to a motion to approve settlement in Held v. Aldo, challenging an attorney’s fee request for more than $5 million by the Chanler Group – one of the most active Proposition 65 plaintiff’s firms – as unreasonable.  Let’s hope Attorney General Harris backs her pledge with more direct and effective oversight to curb abuses of Proposition 65 by private enforcers.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are committed to guiding clients through the constantly changing landscape of Proposition 65 compliance and enforcement.

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California Attorney General Reports Businesses Paid $17 Million to Settle Private Prop 65 Cases in 2013

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And that’s the “good news” – in 2012 it was $20 million.

The California Attorney General’s Office recently released its annual report of Proposition 65 settlements.  The report confirms what most businesses are already painfully aware:  Proposition 65 continues to be a thriving business for private Proposition 65 plaintiffs and their lawyers, who make millions of dollars in the name of the “public interest.”

While private plaintiffs did not reap as much in 2013 as they did in 2012 ($20 million), they did manage to collect $17 million.  That represents the third largest haul for bounty hunters since 2000, when the Attorney General’s Office began collecting the data and publishing annual reports.net

The summary reveals that in 2013 alone, private Proposition 65 plaintiffs acting in the “public interest” and their lawyers entered into a whopping 350 private settlements or consent judgments with businesses alleged to be in violation of Proposition 65, and collected $16,812,396.  In contrast, the Attorney General and local District Attorney each filed a single action.

Proposition 65 requires the State of California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.  Businesses are required to warn consumers before exposing them to any one of more than 800 listed chemicals, by either labeling or posting a notice.  If a business does not comply, it can be liable for substantial civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day.

Proposition 65 has become a disturbingly lucrative operation for private enforcers, frequently called “bounty hunters,” who serve dozens if not hundreds of Notices of Violation on unsuspecting businesses.  These bounty hunters threaten to sue unless they are paid off in private settlements.  If a private settlement cannot be reached, they proceed with a lawsuit and try to force a settlement to avoid the cost of defense.

Proposition 65 allows private enforcers to keep 25 percent of all civil penalties collected, with the remaining 75 percent going to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).  In addition, private enforcers pocket 100% of so-called payments in lieu of penalties, or PILPs.  Whereas OEHHA would receive 75% of monies designated as civil penalties, OEHHA does not receive any portion of monies designated as PILPs.  Finally and most significantly, private enforcers’ lawyers are entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs under the State’s private attorney general doctrine.

The 2013 report shows that only one-tenth of all monies collected by private enforcers went to the State of California.  The rest of the money went to the bounty hunters and their lawyers:

  • $12,426,052, or 74%, went directly to the private enforcers’ lawyers as attorneys’ fees and costs
  • $596,977.25, or 3.6%, went directly to private-enforcer plaintiffs
  • $1,998,435, or 12%, went indirectly to private-enforcer plaintiffs as a payment in lieu of penalty
  • $1,790,931.75, or 11%, went to OEHHA.

The report also shows continued aggressive activity by a handful of Proposition 65 private enforcers.  At the top of the list are:

  • Center for Environmental Health (represented by Lexington Law Group) with 62 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $3.3 million
  • Russell Brimer (represented by Chanler Group) with 60 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2.4 million
  • Peter Englander (represented by Chanler Group) with 46 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $1.6 million
  • John Moore (represented by Chanler Group) with 41 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2 million
  • Environmental Research Center (represented by various law firms including Law Office of Karen A. Evans and Michael Freund & Associates) with 34 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2.8 million
  • Consumer Advocacy Group (represented by Yeroushalmi & Associates) with 25 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $1.3 million

The Prop 65 outlook for businesses in 2014 does not look much better.  In particular, the June 2013 listing of cocamide DEA, a common ingredient in beauty and personal care products, such as liquid soaps and shampoos, has spawned dozens of lawsuits and hundreds of businesses have been named as defendants.  Numerous settlements have already been approved by the Alameda Superior Court this year, leading to speculation that the total settlements in 2014 will likely exceed the total settlements in 2013.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely represents businesses against Proposition 65 claims and lawsuits brought by private enforcers, as well as counsels businesses on compliance with Proposition 65 in order to avoid becoming a future target of private enforcers.

 

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The Conkle Firm Helps MANA Evict Domain Name Cybersquatter

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What do you do when someone else has taken your trademark and used it in an Internet domain name?  Just accept it, even if they’re offering competing products and services?  Do you have to go to court and file a trademark infringement lawsuit?  Fortunately, these questions all have the same answer: No.   You don’t have to accept it, and there are faster and less expensive ways to force the cybersquatter to give up the infringing domain name.

CK&E recently demonstrated this by helping its client, the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (commonly known as MANA) defeat a cybersquatter and force the squatter to transfer the “manaonline.com” domain name to MANA.

All domains ending in a generic Top Level Domain (gTLD) – such as .com, .org or .net – are automatically subject to ICANN’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, an streamlined arbitration process referred to as UDRP.  UDRP provides an efficient method for a trademark owner to resolve its rights to a domain name that uses a substantial part of the trademark or is otherwise confusingly similar to the trademark.  Instead of going to court to sue for trademark infringement, the business owner can file a complaint online with one of several authorized arbitration providers, such as the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) or the Arbitration and Mediation Center of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).  Through a process that is conducted entirely online, these arbitration providers are empowered to force a domain name registrar to transfer a domain to its rightful owner.  This is especially useful if the cybersquatter is in some remote offshore location and cannot be reached by regular legal process, because the domain name registrars are always available and can be directed to transfer the domain name.

To force the transfer of a domain through UDRP, the business owner must show:  (1) the domain name is confusingly similar to a trademark owned by the business;  (2) the current registrant has no rights or legitimate interests in the domain name; and  (3) the domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

In the case in which CK&E helped MANA, another company called “Dvlpmnt Marketing” based out of Saint Kitts and Nevis, in the Caribbean, had registered the “manaonline.com” domain name – which was essentially identical to MANA’s “manaonline.org”   Dvlpmnt had used the domain name to park a webpage featuring “pay-per-click” links to other websites offering services competing with those offered by MANA.  Dvlpmnt owns tens of thousands of domains, and has been the subject of several NAF and WIPO proceedings in the past.

CK&E attorney Zachary Page initiated a Complaint with NAF on behalf of MANA, charging Dvlpmnt with cybersquatting by registering and maintaining in bad faith, and with no legitimate rights, the manaonline.com domain name that was confusingly similar to MANA, whose genuine website is found at manaonline.org.  The different gTLD extensions, .com and .org, are legally insignificant in the UDRP process – effectively, the domain names were regarded as identical.  After the UDRP hearing, the NAF Panel held:

“Considering the totality of the circumstances present here—including the similarity between the disputed domain name and Complainant’s domain name, and the content of the website to which the disputed domain name resolves—the Panel infers that Respondent was aware of Complainant when it registered the domain name and that Respondent is using the domain name in a manner intended to exploit confusion with Complainant’s website and service mark.  These inferences are indicative of bad faith.”

Manufacturers’ Agents National Association v. Domain Administrator / DVLPMNT MARKETING, INC., National Arbitration Forum Claim Number FA1404001553434

A successful UDRP claimant generally has a choice to have the domain registration cancelled or to have the domain name transferred to the claimant.  It is almost always better to have the domain name transferred, so that it cannot be taken by another cybersquatter in the future.  CK&E is proud to have helped its client, MANA, successfully force the cybersquatter to transfer the manaonline.com domain name to MANA.

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Can Containers be Copyrighted?

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There are some containers that have achieved trademark status. Among the most famous are the Coca-Cola bottle and the OPI nail lacquer bottle. Ownership of a trademark in container design requires a solid showing of secondary meaning, which generally takes considerable time, sales volume, and promotional efforts. Ownership of a copyright in a new creative work, on the other hand, is automatic. Copyright registration is usually quick and inexpensive.

So why not protect a container design through copyright? Because a container design that is functional is not copyrightable.

According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in its recent decision of Inhale, Inc. v. Starbuzz Tobacco, Inc., a case about a copyright claim on a hookah water pipe, copyright protection is not available for functional features of a useful article like a bottle or a chair. As a “useful article,” the shape of a container (including a hookah pipe) is copyrightable “only if, and only to the extent that, [it] incorporates . . . sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the container.” 17 U.S.C. § 101.

Courts have said that the non-functional, sculptural features must be “conceptually” or “physically” separable from the container in order to be protected by copyright. “Physically separable” is an easy concept – a printed label or a fancy emblem that is applied to the container can usually be protected by copyright, because it can exist separately from the container. “Conceptually separate” is more esoteric. The Ninth Circuit held that “the shape of a container is not independent of the container’s utilitarian function – to hold the contents within its shape – because the shape accomplishes the function.” In other words, as long as the shape of the container merely holds the container’s contents, the shape is not subject to copyright.

The Ninth Circuit left unanswered whether a “ring shape” that is molded into the bottle but does not conform to the interior container might be copyrightable as “conceptually separate” from the functional container. In any event, the Court’s lesson seems to be that, for copyright protection for a container, the copyrighted feature should serve no purpose in holding the contents. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys regularly work with clients to most effectively secure and protect their valuable intellectual property, regardless of whether it’s a traditional trademark, artwork, a fragrance or a container.

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BIR Article Features the Conkle Firm at Cosmoprof Bologna’s California Pavilion

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Tireless reporter Mike Nave attended Cosmoprof Bologna in April 2014, and this month published the Beauty Industry Report (BIR) article detailing his observations.  BIR featured Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Amy Burke and her participation in the California Pavilion.  As previously posted in this blog, Cosmoprof Bologna is a preeminent global conference for the personal care products industry, with over 207,000 visitors and 2,450 exhibitors from 69 countries, and participation by manufacturers, distributors and industry organizations.  Amy was proud to be able to assist The California Pavilion, orchestrated by the California Trade Alliance.  Amy joined Beauty Industry Market Access (BIMA) directors Patty Schmucker and Cesar Arellanes, and several graduates of the BIMA program, and was pleased to offer immediate assistance in international distribution and brand protection issues.

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Smells Like Trademark Registration

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Brand owners are increasingly tapping into the powerful realm of olfactory memory by using scent as a brand identifier.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel, a pioneer in brand protection strategies, registered one of the only three fragrance trademarks ever on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Principal Register.  In fact, CK&E registered the first ever U.S. fragrance trademark for personal care products.

Scent can evoke strong emotional reactions and create long-lasting memories, so a signature scent can be a critical element of an overall brand identity.  As recently reported in The Los Angeles Times, retail clothing stores and hotels are beginning to use scent diffusers to greet consumers with their custom-made fragrances.  Signature scents can also be introduced with products, such as Brazilian designer Melissa’s bubblegum scented plastic shoes or GM’s use of semisweet scented leather in Cadillac automobiles.

While brand owners often focus on traditional trademarks like brand names (word marks and stylized word marks) and logos (design marks), nontraditional trademarks like scent, sound and color may also be eligible for protection.  In the United States, a scent mark can be registered as a trademark if it is used as a brand identifier, but only if it is neither functional nor naturally occurring in the goods or services.  For example, the scent of elderflower cannot be protected as a trademark for use with perfume, as it would be functional, or for use with elderflower cordial, as it is naturally occurring.  However, the scent of elderflower could be used as a trademark with stationery.

The next hurdle to registration on the Principal Register is secondary meaning.  A brand owner must show that consumers associate the scent with the source of goods or services through evidence such as extensive use of the scent in commerce, advertising expenditure, affidavits from consumers, or surveys.  In order to establish a signature scent as a registrable trademark, it is especially useful to provide evidence of advertising that specifically identifies the scent in connection with the goods or services (e.g., “stationery distinguished by its unique elderflower scent” or “always with our signature fragrance”).

As noted in Gilson on Trademarks, CK&E presented the USPTO with strong evidence that its client’s fragrance mark was not functional when used with hair care products, and CK&E submitted substantial, well-focused evidence of secondary meaning.  As signature scents continue to develop as key elements of brand identities, more brand owners will seek trademark protection for their chosen fragrances.  Brand owners should consider methods of protecting and enforcing their rights in nontraditional trademarks such as fragrance, color and sound.

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